This is our airport delay playbook... just in case!
Delays are an inevitable part of the travel experience and, believe it or not, not all delays are bad. After all, they're often caused by safety concerns or are the result of an earlier accident - both circumstances that will make you grateful you're only aggravated, not injured. But an optimistic attitude can only go so far, especially when you're in an airport.
Airport delays are the frustration of all frustrations. Maybe it's the pressure and panic of how a delayed departure will influence the rest of your travel plans. Or perhaps it's being surrounded by the general anxiety and grumpiness of hundreds of other passengers. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that airports and airlines still have a ways to go when it comes to customer service. Or maybe it's a little bit of everything, rolled in with jet lag, bad coffee, and scratchy toilet paper. No matter the cause, a little planning, preparation, and research can go a long way to help with delays.
Know before you go.
Cross check the schedule with the airline's website and the airport's website. Do they match? Does the airline have a high volume of other flights that are delayed? Is the airport reporting late landings for multiple fights? You're looking for clues that not all is going according to plan.
Pack light in order to keep your belongings with you at all time. It may seem like a hassle but it's well worth it. No lost luggage and the chance to change your clothing after 12 hours? Yes please! We've never once regretted traveling with carry on luggage. (Our bag of choice is the Osprey Porter 46, designed for carry-on and retailing for around $100. Deal! You can read our comprehensive review of it here - and tell us what you think!)
Arm yourself with phone numbers – the airline, the booking service you used, airport hotel, airport information line, and your travel hosts. Other good ones to have on hand include a local taxi company, the tourism bureau, and your best friend (who, failing all else, can find just about anything for you.)
Frequent flyers should subscribe to trip organizing aps like TripIt, which identifies delays and gate changes often before they're announced by the airlines. To be forewarned is to be forearmed!
(PS: REALLY want to avoid delays? Choose your airport with care. Certain airports are notorious for delays. Check out the best and worst in the US!)
"Rule 240" - Part myth, part miracle.
Have you heard about "Rule 240"? It's a thing of legend, even if it's not *really* a thing. Rule 240 (which is actually a different rule or regulation number for each airline and is more commonly called the 'contract of carriage' these days) goes something like this: Airlines who have delayed or cancelled a flight are required to re-book you on whatever airline which will get you to your destination the quickest. Yes, even if it's not their own airline. But only if you ask. And there's plenty of exceptions and exemptions to contend with. But sometimes it really does work.
We insisted on being 240'd during an epic delay in Chicago and United indeed switched us to an American Airlines flight. Had we not spoken up, we would have been delayed a further 24 hours. Our 240'ing consisted of a dubious staff member raising an eyebrow and asking if we were prepared to run (Oh yes, we could run!) and the dumb good luck of our new flight being delayed by just a few minutes as their new crew arrived from another terminal (The lesson here: Even if you won't *officially* make it, you still might make it). And it was another win for carry on luggage! You can't be 240'd easily if you're separated from your luggage.
The glory days of endless 240'ing are almost gone, as airlines tighten up their regulation. But whether you think you're in a position to be 240'd or not, always, always, always ask if "that's the best you can do". Hotels, meal vouches, frequent flyer miles, seat upgrades, lounge access, and compensation is all up for grabs. Be polite and present possible solutions - even if they say there's nothing they can do for you. Every now and then, there's A LOT they can do for you.
Let's pause for some handy resources!
If you're based in Canada like we are, here's some helpful resources: a dedicated list about Canadian airlines plus a very informative article outlining what is meant by different delays and what you can expect. The Canadian Transportation Authority has a lot of helpful information, and also publishes a guide to the rights of travelers with disabilities. And for Canadians and everyone else, there's this helpful article which reminds us that airlines have little to no obligation to help or compensation in the event of a number of circumstances, including weather delays and cancellations - and getting "bumped" from a flight is an entirely different set of circumstances. (Thank you to my resident consumer affairs expert, Jon!)
Be orderly, not angry.
What happens when, despite your best research and preparation, the worst has happened and you're faced with an unexpected delay? Focusing on organization will help save your sanity and maybe your wallet too. Document the experience as it happens. That includes the name and employee number of those who assist you (or don’t), photographs of the unfolding situation, contact information of other travelers, and copies of receipts. In fact, go ahead and take a photo of your receipts for extra back up protection. Your records will be invaluable in case of making a claim after the fact.
Line up to speak with a representative about re-booking - but get ON the line too. The phone line that is! One won't necessarily be faster than the other but you'll double your chances of getting efficient results.
Put your partners on notice. Hotels, restaurants, and tour operators may not be able to accommodate your late arrival but your chances increase dramatically when you give them as much notice as possible.
Find a buddy. Select the most sensible, non-serial killer looking individual you can, one who exudes an air of calm and has the appearance of having been through this before. I am forever grateful to the fellow Canadian I met in London, where both of us were stranded on a flight from Dublin. We shared phone chargers, snacks, and luggage guarding duties and he even used a precious guest voucher so we could both get into the airline lounge. Thank you.
Speaking of lounges.... Is everything falling apart? See if you can purchase a pass to the airline’s lounge. You will escape the chaos; find comfortable chairs, light snacks, ample wine, and lounge-only airline staff who may –* may* – be able to help you with your predicament.
Persist with politeness.
With a little luck, your delay will be like most: An annoying set back without any significant consequences. But should it cross the line between "dismal" and "disastrous", prepare for the long haul. Check and double check all your notes and receipts, write down your experience while it's fresh in your mind, and be prepared to do your research and learn about your rights.
My friend and fellow travel blogger, Colleen from Ad-lib Traveller, persisted for YEARS to get a little known form of compensation regulated by the EU. Her efforts resulted in 300 British Pounds - andan awesome blog post that we can all learn from. Her excellent advice includes sticking with the facts and keeping your cool. (Flights to or from Europe as subject to special compensation rules. Learn more here).
Be persistent, but never lose your temper, raise your voice, or be anything but pleasant. You CAN empathize with a burned out clerk, be determined in getting the full extent of the service you deserve, and maintain politeness even when you're on the verge of tears - all at the same time!
We've seen plenty of rude staff members AND passengers in our day. There's blame on both sides for creating an environment of frustration and it's important to put your best foot forward. Hopefully you'll never have to apply any of this information but, should you find yourself stuck at the gate, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, this post will help!
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